June 30, 2007

Reality's Well-Known Liberal Bias

In one of the best "Back in Black" segments in recent memory, The Daily Show's Lewis Black artfully skewered liberal media bias paranoia, Rupert Murdoch and the tendency of conservatives to create their own bastardized versions of institutions when they are unhappy with prevailing opinion. (Fox News being perhaps the most obvious example.) He holds up for special ridicule Andrew Schlafly's Conservapedia, a right wing version of Wikipedia, and points out that, since Wikipedia is a platform open to editing by anyone, when conservatives create parallel constructions like Conservapedia, they are essentially conceding that they are outside the mainstream of American thought. As Stephen Colbert noted in his merciless roasting of President Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias." (Video courtesy of Crooks and Liars.)

June 26, 2007

The Man in the Shadows is Unfit for Office

Tomorrow, The Washington Post's Barton Gellman and Jo Becker conclude their landmark four-part series on the Vice Presidency of Dick Cheney. Mr. Cheney is roundly regarded as the single most influential and powerful man ever to hold the office of Vice President, and the Post series examines in unprecedented depth his largely hidden - and poorly understood - role in creating and implementing policies for the so-called War on Terror, the economy and the environment. The series breaks down as follows:
  • The first part is entitled Working in the Background, and details the manner in which Mr. Cheney has exerted his influence behind the scenes through his mastery of bureaucracy and court intrigue.
  • Wars and Interrogations is the second installment and a chilling examination of the Vice President's role in promoting the torture of captured foreign nationals, and his leadership in the movement to disregard the Geneva Conventions.
  • Part three is Dominating Budget Decisions, and looks at the VP's behind-the-scenes work to outmaneuver rivals for President Bush's ear and make himself the dominant voice on tax and spending policy.
  • The concluding installment focuses on Environmental Policy, and how Mr. Cheney captained some of the Bush administration’s most significant environmental decisions, including looser air pollution controls, the opening of public parks to snowmobiles, and diverting river water from threatened salmon.
With Mr. Cheney's recent and utterly ridiculous claim that he is not, in fact, part of the Executive Branch of the federal government, this is much-needed reporting, and what it reveals about the startlingly dysfunctional Bush White House is disturbing. Worse, it paints a worrying portrait of a vice president intent on accruing power to himself and his position - no matter the constitutional or legal barriers to that desire - with total disregard for the impact his actions have on operational and policy readiness or the long-term prospects for American democracy.

It is important - among the usual spinning and shilling from backers of the Bush regime - to focus on one thing: Vice President Cheney's novel -if absurd - assertion that his duties as President of the Senate make his position a hybrid of legislative and executive responsibilities, is completely and inarguably false. Article II of the Constitution is entitled "The Presidency," and it clearly establishes that the Vice President is part of the Executive Branch:
Section 1: The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his office during the term of four years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same term, be elected, as follows...
Further, as Dana Milbank points out in an excellent piece called The Cheese Stands Alone, the Vice President enjoys some advantages not typically accorded members of the House or Senate:
"The vice president's theory seems to be one almost laughable on its face, that he's not part of the executive branch," Senator Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) said in a conference call with reporters from his car. "I think if you ask James Madison or Benjamin Franklin or any of the writers of the Constitution, they'd almost laugh if they heard that."

Madison and Franklin did not return phone calls yesterday.

Maybe Schumer was just jealous. After all, Cheney enjoys perks not available to his colleagues in the legislative branch: a mansion off Massachusetts Avenue, Air Force Two, a West Wing office and a huge staff in the, uh, Executive Office Building next to the White House.
This being the case, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel is moving to take Mr. Cheney at his word by offering an amendment that will defund all of those executive entity privileges, and bring the Vice President's office in line with those of what he would have us believe are his "fellow legislators." Says Emanuel, "This amendment will ensure that the vice president's funding is consistent with his legal arguments."

Whatever he may be, Vice President Cheney is not a stupid man, and the idea that he is wholly ignorant of the Constitution is simply not credible. Mr. Cheney is willfully disregarding the law; and this latest outrage is merely the capstone to a career as holder of the nation's second-highest office that has been nothing short of utterly disgraceful. There should be no remaining doubt that Dick Cheney is thoroughly unfit for the vice presidency.

As usual, Jon Stewart cuts through the spin from the Bush noise machine, and lays it all out in a piece from Monday's The Daily Show called "Non-Executive Decision." (Video courtesy of Crooks and Liars.)

[NOTE: This post has been updated to provide the link to the last installment of the Washington Post series on Vice President Cheney, which was not available at the time of publication.]

June 18, 2007

Holding Torturers Accountable

Seymour Hersh's new article in The New Yorker, entitled "The General's Report," is required reading. In it, Mr. Hersh extensively interviews Major General Antonio Taguba, the man tasked with investigating the torture, murder and abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison by American personnel, and the author of what has become know as the Taguba Report, the definitive account of that investigation. This article is imporant for three reasons:

First, it serves to further confirm that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was well aware of what was going on at the prison significantly before he claimed - under oath - to have been:

Rumsfeld was particularly concerned about how the classified report had become public. "General," he asked, "who do you think leaked the report?" Taguba responded that perhaps a senior military leader who knew about the investigation had done so. "It was just my speculation," he recalled. "Rumsfeld didn’t say anything." (I did not meet Taguba until mid-2006 and obtained his report elsewhere.) Rumsfeld also complained about not being given the information he needed. "Here I am," Taguba recalled Rumsfeld saying, "just a Secretary of Defense, and we have not seen a copy of your report. I have not seen the photographs, and I have to testify to Congress tomorrow and talk about this." As Rumsfeld spoke, Taguba said, "He’s looking at me. It was a statement."

Second, it lays to rest the notion that any sort of thorough investigation up the chain of command from the low-level personnel who actually abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib ever took place:

Taguba filed his report in March. In it he found "Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees ... systemic and illegal abuse." ... “From what I knew, troops just don’t take it upon themselves to initiate what they did without any form of knowledge of the higher-ups,” Taguba told me. His orders were clear, however: he was to investigate only the military police at Abu Ghraib, and not those above them in the chain of command. “These M.P. troops were not that creative,” he said. “Somebody was giving them guidance, but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority. I was limited to a box.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it strongly associates President Bush - who thus far has remained largely untainted by this scandal by placing blame on underlings - with one of the most sordid episodes from an administration rife with sordid episodes:

Whether the President was told about Abu Ghraib in January (when e-mails informed the Pentagon of the seriousness of the abuses and of the existence of photographs) or in March (when Taguba filed his report), Bush made no known effort to forcefully address the treatment of prisoners before the scandal became public, or to reĆ«valuate the training of military police and interrogators, or the practices of the task forces that he had authorized. Instead, Bush acquiesced in the prosecution of a few lower-level soldiers. The President’s failure to act decisively resonated through the military chain of command: aggressive prosecution of crimes against detainees was not conducive to a successful career.

Given the tide of utterly corrupt activities that has washed forth from the Bush White House, it is tempting to dismiss all of this as old news, or simply assimilate it as confirmation of long-held suspicions. However, the Abu Ghraib scandal was one of the first major stumbling blocks for the presidency of George W. Bush, and it is arguably one - along with the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay - that has inflicted some of the most significant and lasting damage to the global reputation and world standing of the United States.
As such, an understanding of the events that took place both at abu Ghraib and what was done - or more appropriately, not done - after the scandal came to light, is important. Every credible indication to date has been that the top levels of our government are complicit in torture. Those torturers, and the men and women who enabled them to traumatize and maim and kill human beings in their charge must be held accountable if America is ever to stand for what it stood before the current president claimed the highest office in the land.

Seymour Hersh's article is here, and Dan Froomkin at The Washington Post provides an excellent analysis with some supplementary information here.

June 12, 2007

Happy First Blogoversary!

Sensen No Sen is one year old today! Thank you to the small group of readers who come by here regularly, to those who have found there way to this blog periodically from sites like Crooks and Liars and Blue Herald, and to those who have linked my posts and passed them on to others. Knowing there are people out there who have found worth in what I've written is truly rewarding, and I hope I can continue adding value to the conversation!

June 8, 2007

Save Your Outrage for Those Who Need It

On Tuesday, former Vice Presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for perjury and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case. Despite the best efforts of GOP operatives to minimize Mr. Libby's criminal conduct, there is no remaining doubt whatsoever that Dick Cheney's former righthand man broke the law by lying to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Likewise, despite every attempt to smear and diminish her service, it was firmly established through declassified documents, Ms. Plame's testimony under oath before Congress, and the statements of CIA chief General Michael Hayden, that she was a covert agent of the Central Intelligence Agency.

As part of the sentencing procedure, presiding U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton was asked to take into account dozens of testimonial letters lauding Libby's service to his country from a pantheon of political luminaries ranging from Henry Kissinger to General Peter Pace to Mary Matalin and James Carville. Despite these written entreaties, Judge Walton - an appointee of President George W. Bush - went beyond the probation board's recommendation of a 21-month jail term, and imposed a sentence of two and half years. As MSNBC reported:

Walton, his voice rising, told Libby’s legal team that the CIA believed disclosure was a serious matter, the Justice Department opened an investigation, Libby lied to investigators “and you seem to be saying” none of that should apply at sentencing.

Days earlier, across the country in Los Angeles, hotel heiress Paris Hilton was sentenced to 45 days in jail for violating probation. As in the Libby case, Ms. Hilton's supporters - and her mother - reacted with outrage:

When a reporter asked what she thought of the judge’s decision, a visibly angry Kathy Hilton responded: “What do you think? This is pathetic and disgusting, a waste of taxpayer money with all this nonsense. This is a joke.”

Yesterday, after serving only 3 days in jail, Ms. Hilton was released to house arrest at the order of Sheriff Lee Baca, apparently because of an unspecified medical condition. While she was fitted with an ankle bracelet and returned home, house arrest had been specifically denied by the sentencing judge as an alternative, and today, the former star of The Simple Life was ordered back to lock-up. No matter the outcome, however, charges of "celebrity justice" - and even racial favoritism - had already begun flying.

Although both the Libby and Hilton cases are high profile, the underlying legal issues couldn't be further apart. The relative importance of obstructing a federal investigation versus that of probation violation by a superfluous do-nothing, however, is not what matters. What is key here, is the belief by certain people and their backers that the law does not apply to them, and that they should not be expected to suffer the consequences of their actions. What is also key is that, as the U.S. Attorney scandal has shown, a significant number of these same people are in positions of power.

For all the flaws of the American judicial system, by and large, it works in good faith to ensure that the rule of law is applied. There are issues of bias, corruption, incompetence and strained resources, but in the main, courts in the United States are some of the fairest in the world. It is our ability as citizens to trust in those courts that has enabled our society to live free from the fear of arbitrary prosecution, selective imprisonment and a lack of due process.

For those reasons, despite the protests of paid fools like Bill Kristol, it is vital that Scooter Libby not be pardoned by the president, and that he serve the time to which he has been sentenced. (And, to a lesser degree, that Paris Hilton was returned to jail.) Without the assurance that the rule of law is that to which we, as fallible human beings, at least strive, the United States is no better than a banana republic.

To witness the consequences of a thoroughly compromised judicial system, one need look no further than Nicaragua, where the wealthy and connected have little fear of legal punishment, and people like American publisher Eric Volz can be thoroughly railroaded. Mr. Volz is an entrepreneur working in Nicaragua who was recently sentenced to 30 years in jail for the murder of an ex-girlfriend, despite the fact that there is no physical evidence tying him to the scene, there are more than 10 witnesses who can place him over two hours away at the time of the crime, and reams of documentary evidence supporting his defense. The judge in the case simply dismissed the testimony and evidence supplied by Volz's lawyers, and released several other suspects without follow-up - much as their supporters would like to have happen for Mr. Libby and Ms. Hilton.

So the next time you hear someone decrying the "miscarriage of justice" that will see Scooter Libby imprisoned - or you see someone in a "Free Paris" t-shirt - pause and reflect for a moment on whether such outrage might be better directed to supporting someone who really has been railroaded by a kangaroo court. Scooter Libby and Paris Hilton should get everything they deserve. So should Eric Volz.

If you would like to add your voice to those calling for President Bush to promise that he will not pardon Scooter Libby, Act for Change has a petition here.

For an overview of the Eric Volz case, watch the video below. For more in-depth information, and to help Eric's fight for justice, visit Friends of Eric Volz.

June 3, 2007

The Tarnished City on a Hill

On Friday, President George W. Bush attempted to muster some righteous outrage about the detention of four Iranian-Americans by the regime in Tehran, condemning Iran's imprisonment of American citizens and calling for them to be freed "immediately and unconditionally." In a prepared statement, the president added, "Their presence in Iran - to visit their parents or to conduct humanitarian work - poses no threat."

Iran, for its part, accuses the United States of using intellectuals and others inside the country to undermine the Islamic Republic through what it calls a "velvet revolution." Dual U.S.-Iranian citizens Haleh Esfandiari, an academic, Kian Tajbakhsh, a social scientist, and Parnaz Azima, a journalist, have been charged with spying. A fourth Iranian-American, Ali Shakeri, a California businessman, has also been detained, and if convicted, the four could face death under Islamic Sharia law.

Meanwhile, only one day earlier, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a wide-ranging report to accompany authorizing legislation for American intelligence programs. Among the items evaluated in that report was the "secret interrogation" program run by the Central Intelligence Agency, which includes techniques pioneered in the modern era by none other than the Gestapo, Adolph Hitler's secret police. As part of the authorization process, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) led an effort to cut off funding for the CIA interrogation program, but were stymied by one of their own, Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida.

Nelson crossed party lines to defeat the Whithouse-Feinstein amendment, ensuring that the Central Intelligence Agency would have a free hand to continue using techniques such as waterboarding, which are in violation of law enforcement standards of procedure, the U.S. Army field manual and the Geneva Conventions. Unable to financially strangle this abomination, committee leaders were left to weakly conclude:
More than five years after the decision to start the program, the committee believes that consideration should be given to whether it [the CIA program] is the best means to obtain a full and reliable intelligence debriefing of a detainee... Both the Congress and the administration must continue to evaluate whether having a separate CIA detention program that operates under different interrogation rules than those applicable to military and law enforcement officers is necessary, lawful and in the best interests of the United States.
Two weeks prior to Nelson's betrayal of real American values, the second Republican presidential debate was held in South Carolina, with the leading candidates working hard to establish their conservative credentials (at least as they are defined today in the United States). Pushing hardest was former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who, when asked about interrogation methods for terrorist suspects, declared that he would like to double the capacity of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which houses more than 500 foreign nationals outside of the American judicial system. Demonstrating a thorough contempt for American values and the lessons of history, Romney opined:
I don't want them on our soil. I want them on Guantanamo, where they don't get the access to lawyers that they get when they're on our soil. I don't want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is we ought to double Guantanamo.
The upshot of all this is that, in our panic to use any means to fight the battle for security, we have already begun losing the war. The four Iranian-Americans may be completely innocent of the charges that have been leveled against them, but in a day when the President Bush has authorized the CIA to pursue renewed destabilization efforts against Tehran, it is certainly possible that they are not.

In either case, however, the United States has ceded any moral high ground we might otherwise claim with regard to prisoner treatment and judicial review for detainees. Our policies at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, our extraordinary rendition program, and our moral exceptionalism in the wake of 9/11 are placing our troops and our citizens in greater danger of mistreatment at the hands of our emeies. "Secret interrogations" undermine everything we are supposed to stand for as Americans, and as Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift put it:
It‘s not whether they deserve it or not. It‘s how we conduct ourselves. It has to do where if we say that our opponent can cause us not to follow the rules anymore, then we‘ve lost who we are. We‘re the good guys. We‘re the guys who follow the rule and the people we fight are the bad guys and we show that every day when we follow the rules, regardless of what they do. It‘s what sets us apart. It‘s what makes us great and in my mind, it‘s what makes us undefeatable, ultimately.
To be clear, the mullahs in Tehran are a theocratic dictatorship with a stranglehold on political power that they are in no way inclined to relinquish. But if civil liberties in Iran are a joke, we have made it easier for that country's leaders to maintain the repression of its citizens; they can simply claim they are acting no worse than that one-time beacon of liberty, that now-tarnished shining city on a hill, the United States of America.